Justin Todd may have attended the school of hard knocks many times in life, but the new year could see the former prison inmate turning a new leaf and starting university. His long-term goal: to work at helping steer young people early on from a destructive life path.
“I am finally happy with who I am becoming,” Todd, who is 41 and lives in Brooklyn, Queens, declares on his Facebook page.
Todd dropped out of high school at the age of 17 with just five more credits needed to graduate. It would be another 23 years before he would complete high school — behind bars, at the age of 40. Now he’s on his way to undertaking post-secondary education.
On June 25, 2021, Todd walked across the Queens Adult High School graduation stage at Brooklyn Marina as a free man, ready to start a new chapter in what had been a tough life.
Todd’s troubles with the law started from an early age and landed him in youth correction centres as a teenager.
“I was always in trouble with the law, but not like serious stuff, just stupid teenage stuff,” he told LighthouseNOW.
He tried to return to school to get his diploma, but life got in the way. He started a family and moved to Alberta with his wife to open his own roofing business.
They had five children together before she left him. His drug habit and drinking caught up to him again. He hit rock bottom and lost everything.
“I had five kids at the time; I had no clue how to raise them. So I got messed up with drugs again and got into some serious trouble,” he admitted.
He wound up in jail for a month in Calgary. His final three weeks in the city saw him living in a homeless shelter. He decided that was enough.
“So I picked up my five kids and took the last bit of money we had and took a five-day bus trip back to Nova Scotia.”
Initially, things seemed to be going well. He was getting back on his feet, working again, and met another woman. However, just days before the couple were to be married in 2015, tragedy struck. His 12-year-old brother drowned, and he turned to drugs once more.
The marriage didn’t last long. He ended up in trouble with the law again and his children were taken away from him by the province’s child protection service. He then spent the following three years trying to get them back. In 2019, he undertook two, 28-day counselling programs at Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital to help him combat the issues that were plaguing him.
On his 40th birthday, in August 2020, he was sentenced to eight months in jail for drug trafficking and counterfeiting money.
“The normal me, I wouldn’t have even thought about doing something like this,” said Todd. “But when you are into it as deep as I was, you’ll do anything to get your next fix.”
However, he decided he wasn’t going to let the jail time deter him. “It was what it was. I had finally come to terms with it.”
According to Todd, immediately upon arriving at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Centre in Dartmouth’s Burnside Industrial Area, he was placed in the COVID-19 quarantine section. He reports he was soon attacked in his cell there and went on to spend two weeks in the health care area. He started reading books, “because that’s all you could [do].”
While at Burnside, he completed counselling courses covering addictions, family planning and anger management.
Combined, it was a catalyst for a teacher who was available on site to set him on an education path.
“From there I buckled down in my cell and managed to complete five courses. He recalls spending 10 to 14 hours a day “just writing,” while studying global history, geography, geology, family studies and Biology 12.
“A lot of this I had to teach it myself. All I had was a textbook and my brain,” he said.
He did well and was invited to graduate alongside fellow adult graduates at the Brooklyn Marina in June.
“It was euphoric. It really was. I had tears in my eyes,” he recalled. “For graduation, my teacher from Correctional Services came down to watch me. She gave me a book by Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, which is inspirational anyway, but to get that from her it really meant something.”
He also earned a $600 bursary from the Milton United Church, which he intends to use to pay for a writing skills course he needs to pass to be eligible to attend university. He was also presented with the school’s Determination Award for his efforts.
Todd’s youngest daughter Sophia, 13, is quick to praise her father.
“He’s had a lot of slip-ups, but he’s gotten through it, and I’m proud of him,” she told LighthouseNOW. “He wasn’t there for the biggest part of my life, and it was heartbreaking, but now he is starting to continue his journey in a good way and I can look up to him and he inspires me to do better in school.”
According to Todd, his five children are the source of his inspiration.
“One of my daughters said before I went to jail that if you ever get into trouble again I will disown you and never talk to you again. That was a bit of a wake-up call for me,” he said. “Regardless of my history and my addictions, my kids are my world.”
A roofer for 26 or 27 years of his life, he decided he wanted to move forward with something different, “and use my brain to make a living and be able to help people at the same time.”
When he graduates from university he wants to work with adolescents and use his experiences to help keep them from going down the same path.
“If you can nip it in the bud when it begins, then they’re not going to spend the next five or six years destroying their lives, and then spend the next five or six trying to get it back together,” he said.
Kevin McBain, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, LighthouseNOW Progress Bulletin